For over sixty five years now – nearer seventy – ever since we were kids in the street, me and Ben have been joined at the hip. When we were young we were reasonably fashion conscious, mostly in our efforts to get girls, but nowadays we’re like dirtied up versions of Gandalf and Radagast, facial hair and all. It’s a kind of a disguise, you see, as our unwashed, shuffling, old man movements can sometimes fool the Dead into thinking we’re them. Except when we’re on our bikes, of course.
In recent years, in this suburban desolation, we’ve had to avoid corpses entirely because we can’t defend ourselves too well anymore. Bad joints and malnutrition have made us slow and feeble; Ben even more so than me. His arthritis barely lets him walk. So for us its eyes peeled all the time and ears open all the time, but this morning we dropped the ball. Not a single whiff of danger registered on our radars. I mean, with our experience we really should have seen them coming. It just goes to show how charmed we’ve been all along.
Anyway, I killed them both, those two dead guys, but look at how they’ve left us; on our backs in the street, bruised and torn and paper pale. My knees and elbows bleeding after tumbling from my bike. My head split. Trousers ripped. Coat tattered. My leg…I’m not ready to think about my leg just yet, and to top it all I pulled a muscle in my shoulder while making that final angry swing with the golf club. All I need now is chest pains.
Not three minutes ago me and Ben were cycling slowly and quietly through this pre-war housing estate, minding our own business, looking for a likely residence in which to begin our daily scavenge, when two dormant corpses rose up from behind a garden wall and got the drop on us as we passed, knocking me clean off my bike.
The frame sort of twisted under me as I fell and I landed half on top of the front wheel. I was wondering what the hell had just happened when a corpse dropped right on top of me. It grabbed me round the waist and nuzzled its face into my upper leg – my thigh, its teeth pinching down hard as it tried to bite in. I yelped and slammed the back of its head desperately with my fists. When it failed to bite entirely through the heavy denim of my jeans it changed tack and scuttled like a spider for my neck.
I held it back with both arms as it snapped at my nose with cracked, moss coated teeth. Its gibbering, emaciated face was only centimetres above mine when it drooled a long viscous slug of black gloop, complete with an unsocketed tooth, directly into my open mouth. I swallowed the tooth. This horror filled me with such revulsion that I ripped and twisted my way past a pinioning handlebar, pushed the juddering corpse aside and lurched to my feet, coughing and gagging as I stumbled over rotating wheels and spokes.
I spat and retched. Christ, I couldn’t spit enough. I grabbed my fallen five iron and swung wildly, knocking the corpse’s lower jaw clean off its face and sent it sailing up the street. It waggled its loose, dangling tongue at me as I caved in the top of its head.
Ben was on his back holding off the second corpse, its claws scratching at his face. I broke its neck with a single furious blow; bollixing my shoulder with the impact. The smelly carcass flopped limply off him and came to rest on its side, paralysed but aware, still clacking its teeth.
The taste in my mouth was unspeakable. I puked, and to my great relief the undead tooth came back up again, root and all. Reaction kicked in and my remaining energy just drained away. I lay carefully down on the road beside Ben. Neither of us made any move to stand. We simply couldn’t. It was beyond our power. That vile, ungodly slime I swallowed wriggled through my system like worms. My lungs tightened up. It was like breathing through a straw. My heart pounded in my sunken chest. It pulsed in my ears.
A long time later Ben struggled painfully into a sitting position, his face grey with shock. A wave of affection for him burst right through me as I dragged myself slowly to my feet. I counted my aches but said nothing about them because Ben never mentions his. I looked at him closely. Is he okay? He’s not of course, I know that, but I mean, is he worse than usual? He’s always in pain; has been for the last few years, anyway. Then he scares me by twitching those bushy grey eyebrows of his – its always trouble when he does that. It means he has something serious on his mind. It’s his Tell. I just hope he didn’t break anything; a hip or something.
“What hurts?” I asked.
It was a slow, painful process getting him to his feet. Once he was standing I gazed absently at our attackers. Then I gaped in dawning shock. I actually recognised one of them. “It can’t be,” I said. “Ben, Look! I don’t believe it! It’s…oh, now, that bastard, what was his name again?”
“That’s Porky Whelan,” said Ben in equal astonishment. “A useless troublemaking tosser if ever there was one.”
“Yeah. That’s him. Porky bleeding Whelan,” I said. “So called because he was such a skinny little bollocks. Mean too, weren’t you Porky? Nasty. A right vindictive little shite.” Porky regarded us with blobby eyes, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.
“And that other one over there,” added Ben. “That’s his old mate Eamon; another prize wankbag. Imagine, both of them dead and still hanging around together.”
“Old habits,” I said. “I bet they’ve got a flagon of cider stashed behind that garden wall and all.”
Ben glanced up and down the street and realised at last where we actually were. “My Jaysus, Jayo,” he said. “No wonder these two are here. Just look at where we’re at. We’re pretty close to our old road, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, it’s just a couple of streets away.”
“I haven’t been back this way in forty years. Not since Maggie’s funeral.”
Ah, Maggie Kenny; that wonderful girl. The only time that me and Ben ever seriously fell out was over which of us would get to date Maggie. Luckily for me her sister Louise took a shine to Ben and I promptly made my sneaky move while she had his back turned.
Maggie and I only dated for a few months before I felt compelled to move on to greener female pastures. I often wished I hadn’t. But I was always doing that; finding the girl of my dreams, then moving quickly on to find the next one, always leaving a trail of upset in my wake. But I was weak. I couldn’t help myself. I often wondered how some of them ever forgave me, as many often did, including Maggie; but I put it down to women being simply the most wonderful creatures that ever evolved.
Oh, shite! There goes Ben’s eyebrow again. “Spit it out,” I said.
“You know what it is,” he replied. “I can’t do this any more, Jay. I can hardly move. You can hardly breathe. If we were dogs we’d be put down. I haven’t an ounce of energy. If only we could find somewhere safe…” He trailed off. There wasn’t anywhere safe. A few months ago we’d had a similar conversation. I wanted us to go up to Molly Byrnes farm in Wicklow but Ben didn’t think he was up to the journey. Instead we’d laughed when he suggested that in the interim we should hole up in a nursing home.
He squinted into the sharp rays of the rising sun. The low angle of the light lit the treetops and the roofs and erased the crow’s feet from his eyes. “I’m just so bollixed,” he sighed.
“I tell you what,” I said. “As it’s not too far away, let’s spend the day looking around the old homesteads, why don’t we? Just for the hell of it. We might find a tin of peas, or a comfy bed, or a place to sit ourselves down in and lick our wounds. Maybe work out how to get shot of this old town for good. And hey, the shops might still be there. We can relieve them of some more of their sweets.”
“Why not,” he smiled. “They can’t throw us out for thievery these days.”
I helped him on his bike and soon we were coasting slowly and quietly along our old, childhood road. There were long front gardens on the terraced house side and shorter front gardens on the semi-detached side. Roof tiles over there, slates over here. Ivy grew unchecked along the face of one of the terraced rows, covering front doors and windows in a single, unbroken sheet. Most places seemed intact. My old house was still in one piece. Bens was too, just across the road and up a bit from mine. Tulips and snapdragons still grew in places. There were bees buzzing.
Our wheels purred and clicked under a long blue sky as we cautiously took in the sights; supersensitive to unwelcome surprises.
“Look, there’s Flynn’s old gaf,” said Ben quietly as we passed it by. I could see he was struggling to have gotten this far. Not that I was in much better shape. All I wanted to do was to pick a house, enter it and collapse on the first soft surface.
“Yeah, and there’s Barry’s over there.” I added.
“And your old place.”
“Jaysus, I’d forgotten about them. And look, Maggie and Louise’s.”
To my relief Ben eventually applied the brakes outside a particularly special, two story, semi-detached house. Though still distressed he managed to crack a fond smile.
“Sarah Rivers’ house,” he said – completely unnecessarily – I bleeding knew whose house it was.
“Perfect,” I said, not untruthfully. “Let’s go in.”
“Yeah,” Ben agreed. “Let’s find out at last what it looks like inside.”
I smiled ruefully. Man, but I could write a book. Sarah Rivers. In order to thank me for rescuing her from outlaws, pirates and other generic scurvy types, Sarah Rivers used to materialise nightly in my tiny teenage room. “You saved me, Jay,” she’d whisper in my ear. “You’re my hero. How can I possibly reward you?” Then she’d permit me to do the most wicked things to her voluptuous shade. Well… not really of course, but how I wished.
She utterly inflamed both Ben and me – and the rest of our little pubescent gang – but Sarah Rivers was in her twenties back then and we were completely invisible to her. We’d sit for hours on her garden railings in the hope that she’d notice us but she never so much as glanced at our adoring, spotty faces.
“She’d be over eighty now,” I mused as I dismounted. “But I think you’d still make the moves on her. Wouldn’t you, Benny?”
“Probably. She’d have to do most of the work though.”
“She’d have to do it all, bud.”
He smiled. “Now Jay, not so loud. Her ghost might still be in there just waiting to take advantage of an innocent, good looking youngfella like meself.”
I leaned the bikes against the rusty garden railings and we carefully eyeballed the house. Ben could barely move and my breath was still short. My mouth tasted of dead mouse. I helped him shuffle as far as the front door. I quietly broke the lock and stepped cautiously into a miniscule hall.
The place looked as if Shelob had held orgies here. A steep, cobweb festooned stairs ran immediately up through the centre of this small house. I’d never seen so much web before. It drifted in sheets and curtains from ceiling to banisters. There was a spider sealed door to our right and another to our left; evidence that we were the first people in here in years; since long before the End it looked like. We listened carefully for movement but the place was undisturbed.
“Come into my parlour,” whispered Ben as he struggled slowly past me and into the living room, brushing web aside and using the door frame for support. Ben’s old house up the road was identical to this one. The rooms were smaller than I remembered, though. “It’s so pokey,” he remarked softly as I closed the front door quietly behind us.
Knick knacks sat on the mantelpiece and sun faded watercolours hung on the walls. There was a pair of armchairs, an antique TV with push buttons and an old record player in a corner. There was a handful of LP’s and old paperbacks on a bookshelf; Peyton Place and Angelique. A few copies of Irelands Own gathered dust on a coffee table.
I used my five iron to sweep through the web as we shuffled on through to the sun filled kitchen. To our surprise there were some canned goods in the cupboards.
“This is more like it,” Ben said, holding up a tin of beans.
“Check those labels,” I suggested. “That stuff looks particularly old.”
Food is very scarce. If the stuff we find isn’t too obviously bad we just eat it and hope for the best. This made us sick a few times but we have to take our chances. As it stands we’re probably only half of our pre-End weight. If we lost the beards we’d be a quarter, and if we washed… well, let’s just say that our coats are probably heavier than we are.
Ben eased himself into a chair at the kitchen table with a creaky sigh. He looked around the room and froze; whispering urgently: “Ah, Jay, Jay. For fecks sake. Would you just take a look at that?”
A chill ran up my arms. There was Sarah Rivers smiling down at us from an old faded photo. In it she was young and gorgeous. I felt…I don’t know what I felt; a kind of longing – and also, I think, a pang of regret at never having known her. I unpinned the black and white ten by eight from the crooked notice board and handed it over to Ben. He gently brushed dust from its curling edges as I sat quietly down beside him.
“This is still her place,” we both said softly together. Her eyes regarded us brightly from the picture; her lovely features, her jet black hair. We gazed wistfully at a dazzling smile that had never, ever, been directed at us.
Man, but she’d been really something; sexy, too. We once got a flash of her stocking tops and thighs as she carelessly climbed out of a taxi outside. It was an instant of such intense, shocking wonder that my strong, fifteen year old heart stopped dead in my chest. She flounced off up the driveway and into her house before Ben could whisper, awestruck: “I think I just got sick in my pants.” We spoke of that magical moment fondly, and often, for many years afterwards.
“She was really, really something, wasn’t she?” Ben said. “We didn’t just imagine it.”
“No. No we didn’t.” I agreed. “Who’s that ugly sod, though?” A smiling young man, cursed with a revolting handsomeness, embraced her closely from behind. Sarah Rivers hugged his encircling arms tightly, delightedly showing off the two kilo sparkler that glinted on her ring finger.
“She married,” I whispered. “Oh, my Jaysus. Me poor, poor heart.”
I was reminded of another teen fantasy in which Sarah Rivers would take me to meet her glamorous, classy friends. “This is Jay,” she’d tell them. “He’s the one who saved me from the pirates and/or outlaws and/or bank robbers.”
I imagined these introductions happening in cosy, carpeted rooms with roaring fires and deep shadows; rooms awash with femininity; redolent of perfumes and frills and laces and satins where kind, elegant women in cocktail dresses, besotted by my bravery, would congregate round me in the candlelight. I’d bask snugly in their open admiration as we sipped sophisticated drinks from tall glasses.
I used to love that silly daydream. For a long time it remained the heaven I wanted to go to when I died; just me and all those marvellous females to adore; those goddesses.
After a while Ben went exploring like he always did, arthritis or no arthritis. I waited until I heard him labouring up the stairs before nervously taking stock of my injuries. My shoulder was bad and my split head was okay. The taste in my mouth was less fetid than before but it was my leg – I was frightened to look at my leg. Porky’s pal had done mischief there. I eventually gathered up my courage, unzipped my jeans and forced myself to examine the damage.
“Jay? Hey, Jay?” Ben called quietly from above.
“Come on up here a minute, will you?”
Ben had swept the heavy cobwebs aside to clear a passage to her bed. We stood there and gazed silently down at the remains of Sarah Rivers. The once white eiderdown under which she lay was flat and creaseless. It was as if the bed itself, over all the years, had slowly absorbed her body into itself.
A lonely water glass and several empty pill bottles rested on her bedside table, as did a web encrusted diamond ring; the same one we’d seen in the photo below. Her black lustreless hair, rumpled across the pillows, was covered by a dusty patina. It was very plain that she’d been lying here like this for a long, long time. Her skin was dry grey parchment stretched across white bone; her lips were dust – their flat edges receding in a grimace from discoloured teeth. Not a hint of her beauty remained.
I was gobsmacked. Bewildered. She wasn’t meant to be here. She was meant to be living a timeless, glittering life elsewhere in some distant exotic country; smiling beneath swaying palm trees, watching warm waves lapping on a tropical beach. Her presence here in this webbed-up, dusty room simply didn’t compute. Ben gazed at my obvious confusion as I digesting this terrible scene.
“I…I don’t understand,” I said stupidly. Ben reached over and gently slid a tarnished photo frame from Sarah’s skeletal grasp. It had been taken by a street photographer sometime in the early sixties. O’Connell Bridge, Dublin; that same young man looking restlessly off to one side of the lens, a sweater draped casually over his shoulders. Holding his hand but trailing a pace behind was Sarah Rivers, gazing at him sidelong with an uncertain expression; all Capri pants, beehive hairdo and doubt.
“Oh, Sarah,” I said, a numbness creeping over me as I pieced this story together. “Did he get cold feet? Call off the wedding? Well, I’d have married you in a flash,” I added impulsively. “I’d have saved you from all this…this…” Words failed me. “Wouldn’t I have, Ben?” I finished weakly.
Ben sighed and put the photo down. “You’d have married them all Jayo, I think.”
Maybe it was the shock of the attack kicking in – or the injury – or maybe it was finding this important icon of my teenage years perished in such lonely circumstances. I dunno, but I was afraid that if I said another word I’d weep, so I left Ben by her bedside and made my way back down to the kitchen.
“She’s been up there for years,” Ben began indignantly as he rejoined me. “Surely she had friends and family; someone who must have noticed her missing? You’d think the neighbours would have seen the garden go to hell or the house go unpainted. I mean, surely someone noticed her gone?”
I looked at him curiously through my unhappiness. He doesn’t normally get this agitated about things. Something other than Sarah Rivers’s fate was bothering him.
“What about the milkman?” he continued. “Or the postman, or even the feckin burglar for Jaysus sake.” He limped to the cupboard. “It’s obvious what she did to herself up there, but maybe she wouldn’t have done it if she knew what we thought of her; you and me, Jay. How much we loved her.”
“I’m not so sure what we felt for her was strictly love, Benny.”
“Speak for yourself,” he muttered, and maybe he was right. Maybe I had been in love with her. Or maybe Ben can simply remember better how we used to feel about things back then. I can’t deny how upset I feel about her lying undiscovered for so long.
“Do you think that maybe, y’know,” Ben dithered. “We could have done something to help her?”
“Us? No, Benny. We were just stupid kids.” Bens working up to what he wants to say; all this talking and fussing about… “It wasn’t up to us.”
“Hey, coffee!” he cried; too cheerfully; eyebrow twitching. “And sugar! There’s sugar, too! Oh, it’s a bit lumpy, though.”
“Ben, sit down will you?” I said. It was time to talk: to tell him. He looked at me suspiciously.
“Just sit, okay?” I insisted, so he did.
“What’s the matter?”
I couldn’t quite look at him. “Ben, I’ve been bitten. I’m sorry.” I couldn’t look at the expression I knew was unravelling his craggy features. He said nothing; he just sort of folded into his seat in much the same way that I was folded into mine. We sat there side by side in silence, looking at a square of sunlight creep across the formica table top. I wasn’t as frightened as I’d been ten minutes earlier. Not really. But I was scared of leaving Ben alone in this world with no one to care for him.
“Listen,” I said; laying down the law. “You’re to cycle up to Molly Byrne’s farm, okay? Today. Now! You’ll be safe there. We should have done it years ago. We discussed it often enough. I just know she’s still alive. Benny, you can’t stay round here alone. You wouldn’t last a week without me and Molly’ll take good care of you.” I sat there, waiting for some reaction, but Ben said nothing.
“Come on, Ben; don’t make me spend my last few hours fretting over what’s to become of you.”
“Ah, Jayo,” he sighed. “You needn’t fret. There’s no point. Listen, that skanger Porky; he bit me, too.”
“Liar!” I snapped. “You’re only saying that to make me feel better.”
He shook his head sadly and rolled up his sleeve to show me the unmistakeable damage to his arm. I looked him in the eye at last. This was harder than I could’ve imagined.
“That explains the eyebrow,” I whispered, afraid to speak aloud.
“Aw Jaysus,” he moaned, as if he’d just let himself down. “Have I been doing the eyebrow?”
After a while I pulled my seat a little closer to his and put my arm around his shoulder. Ben’s news gutted me. But it sort of calmed me too, in a way. I didn’t have to worry about him now. Not anymore. After a lifetime together it looks like we’ll actually get to kick the bucket together, too.
“Well,” I said conversationally, peering out the window. “It looks like it’s turning into a really nice day out there. What’ll we do, then? Will we see it out right here? You know, just stay put where we are?”
“It’s funny you should ask,” he said. “I was just thinking about that upstairs. But no. This is too sad a house to die in. What I think I’ll do is just go on up the road to my parent’s old place and pop my clogs quietly there. I don’t care about turning. I’ll be dead. It won’t matter a damn to me.” I remember Ben’s old room, the pair of us smoking out the window.
“Yeah, okay.” I said. “I’ll go with you.”
Ben’s system was already shot and I reckoned I’d outlive him just long enough to sit by his bedside and see him safely on his way. And after that? Well, I think I’ll just head back to my old childhood home too. Sure, why not?
I paused for a moment to gaze up the stairs before closing Sarah Rivers’s front door softly behind us. We began our difficult, shuffling way up the street to Ben’s place. We didn’t bother with the bikes. Luckily, his house was unoccupied and once he was settled comfortably into his old bed he quickly went downhill – quicker that I expected. He became racked with fever. I could feel the sickness blooming inside me as well, so I lay down next to him and fed him water each time he came around.
“Be sure you leave before I turn,” he eventually said.
“And lock me in. Okay?”
He passed out again and I sipped at the water bottle. Then he stirred and sat up.
“No way,” he whispered in surprise, staring fixedly at the bedroom door. “Look Jay.”
“What is it?” I gasped, alarmed.
“Who do you bleeding think?” he said. Then he pulled me close and whispered urgently: “Hey, how do I look?” And that was it. He fell back on the pillows. He was gone. I gazed bereft at the cooling, Ben-shaped waxwork that had just replaced my old pal in the bed. I never realised that the universe could feel so profoundly empty.
Not knowing how long it would take for him to turn I pulled the sheet over his head and left, closing the door securely behind me. I burned hot and fierce as I stumbled my own way home. I crawled on all fours up the steep stairs of my parent’s old house and fell exhausted and grief stricken on the bed in my childhood bedroom. I gazed through fevered eyes at the four familiar walls and comforted myself with thoughts of Ben. And, as my end loomed large, I even spared a passing thought for Sarah Rivers and for all of the hours I’d spent in this very room just dreaming of her; yearning for her.
At last, between one heartbeat and the next, the entire cosmos shifted sideways with a jolt and my pain abruptly ceased.
I opened my eyes in surprise. It was dark outside and I actually felt pretty good. A subtle, but noticeable, scent of perfume drifted through the room. An ethereal figure stood motionless by the window. I knew it was just a shape made from cobwebs and dust and moonbeams, but still…
“Hello?” I whispered.
“No. It’s me.”
I gasped in surprise, but I didn’t feel scared. “Do you know me?”
“Well, of course I do,” she breathed. “This morning in my house you spoke of me so fondly, so kind-heartedly, that your words pulled me right back out of the darkness.” She caressed my cheek with warm fingertips, her face down close to mine. “So you saved me, you see. You’re my hero. How can I possibly thank you?”
Later, as we ambled down the road, I was still a little confused by this turn of events, but she seemed quite assured of the situation. I watched the sequins of her cocktail dress glimmer in the moonlight.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“To this cosy place I know,” she said. “It isn’t far from here and all of my friends will be there, and maybe one of yours, too. I just know you’ll be such a hit.”
Then she squeezed my hand and smiled that dazzling smile.